Deliberating on Design & Disassembly // A Studio Visit with Justin Brett - Bubblegum Club

Deliberating on Design & Disassembly // A Studio Visit with Justin Brett

Both on behalf of BubblegumClub and as a loving friend, I visited ceramicist Justin Brett and enjoyed an insightful studio visit and interview, which went into his creative journey and recent body of work. As I stepped into the space, I was enveloped in an atmosphere of creative contemplation. With candour and humility, Brett shed light on the subtleties of his process, and the evolution of his practice, particularly the inspiration behind his recent ceramic series, Pluto’s Font (2024).

In the heart of Melville, Brett’s quaint studio is a sanctuary, complete with a secret garden of the artist’s own making. In between his artistic pursuits, Justin Brett runs his own landscape business and the fruits of this labour are evident as one walks through his eclectic home, which he shares with his long-term partner, Eduardo. “… there’s definitely been a gap in my practice. I didn’t make work for 10, 15 years,” Brett confesses, a revelation that punctuates the conversation with a sense of retrospection. 

Justin Brett
Pluto’s Font X, Cobalt and Chrome Well, Cobalt Fount and Pool, Clay slips and mineral pigments, 18.00 cmx18.00 cm, 2023

After his hiatus, Brett’s artistic rejuvenation has been marked by astounding accomplishments such as features in House and Leisure, Reservoir Projects, and a hand in the redesign of the prestigious Candice Berman Gallery on Jan Smuts. Brett reflected on his PhD journey, which was riddled with interpersonal challenges, and likely to have led to his hiatus. “… it finally ended in 2018, and then I only started really making stuff now,” he reveals, demonstrating how one’s artistic journey is unequivocally shaped by one’s life experiences.

Meditating on the synthesis of past and present, Brett spoke of the serendipitous evolution of his sculptural forms. While the delicate watercolours and pencil drawings prominent in his past work explored memory and myth, they also touched on physical architecture, which is what his new ceramics are all about. With an interplay of texture and colour, each piece exudes a sense of intentionality. “They become, uncomfortably, a little bit too much like orifices or eyes… But then they’re also just pots,” Brett muses, unveiling the duality inherent in his work.

Brett’s blend of professional interests and personal space is evident all around his Melville home. Once a rundown pool house and heritage shed, he transformed it using his design, carpentry, and recycling skills. Inspired by a 1900s agricultural relic, he manifested textured patterns, geometric motifs and reliefs present in the ongoing work, Pluto’s Font.

Justin Brett
Pluto’s Font VII, Copper and Cobalt Well and Springs, Clay slips and mineral pigments, 18.00 cmx18.00 cm, 2023

In Pluto’s Font,  Brett explores classical architectural forms and ancient mythology to envision pools, geysers, and springs. With mineral pigments extracted from deep earth, Brett’s sublime ceramics symbolise new material artefacts and humanity’s ongoing connection to the landscape and environment through alternative cosmologies.

The pieces are meticulous and yet their almost mathematical quietude evokes a certain sacredness. Because of the safety in our relationship, the space, and the objects themselves, I felt free to ask Brett about the elusive boundary between art and design, to which he openly responded, “I suppose I was trying to make design in a way. But there’s something that I just… I was drawn to making it more peculiar.” Brett wants his objects to remain open-ended and resist categorisation, inviting viewers to engage with them on their own terms.

Yet, while they are still, they are also strangely full of mischief and movement. The concept of modularity is central in Pluto’s Font, with Brett succinctly describing the objects as “modular” and “reconfigurable.” These are not mere static objects but rather dynamic pieces that can be rearranged and reimagined. The objects in Pluto’s Font are meant to be delicate objects in one’s home, but also opportunities for frivolousness and creativity.

Justin Brett
Pluto’s Font III, Dark Cobalt Jets and Well, Clay slips and mineral pigments, 18.00 cm x 18.00 cm, 2023

I probed him on this notion of home and how he perceived the presence of his objects in people’s living spaces. Brett reflected on his evolution from creating large-scale installations to crafting more intimate, domestic objects. “These are definitely more domestic items now,” he remarked. This shift represents not only a maturation of his practice but also a reconciliation between the personal and the public, the intimate and the monumental.

While our conversation was informal and convivial, the objects in front of us were palpably tempered by a deep sense of intentionality and control. With its geometric forms, muted tones and hard surfaces, Brett’s practice emerges as contemplative and restrained. In his own words, Brett described the work as a “meditative game,” where the act of creation is both deliberate and spontaneous, structured yet fluid. This duality lends the pieces a sense of home and belonging in the chaotic backdrop of Joburg’s creative scene.

Through each decisive clay slip, Justin Brett continues to forge his distinct path in contemporary South African ceramics. His inventive new work, Pluto’s Font moves the viewer to think about space in a new, serious, and simultaneously unserious way. While it embraces ambiguity, the work doesn’t do too much and isn’t swayed into the pretentious over-explaining prevalent in SA arts. In a world of conformity, these straightforward, yet playful objects remind us of the joy of the journey and the fundamentality of fragmentation.

Justin Brett
Pluto’s Font V, Cobalt Pool, Clay slips and mineral pigments, 18.00 cm x 18.00 cm, 2023
Justin Brett
Pluto’s Font I, Cobalt and Chrome Pools and Fount, Clay slips and mineral pigments, 18.00 cm x18.00 cm, 2023

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